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Palos Park gallery a gateway to WW II history

If you go ...

What: World War II exhibit

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday

Where: McCord Gallery and Cultural Center, 9602 W. Creek Road, Palos Park

Admission: $12 adults, $10 for McCord members. Veterans, military members, students and those younger than 18 are admitted free.

Extras: Lecture and reception with Dr. Ted Karamanski, Loyola University history professor, 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $50.

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Updated: April 7, 2013 6:05AM



A small, slightly tarnished brass church bell stands as a survivor of the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, a symbol that peace will prevail.

By contrast, a Japanese soldier’s helmet bears a hole from a fatal grenade fragment, indicating the cost of that peace.

These two artifacts will be part of an extensive World War II exhibit on display March 6 to 10 at the McCord Gallery and Cultural Center, 9602 W. Creek Road, Palos Park.

The gallery will be filled with documents signed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. There will be uniforms of American, German, Russian and British soldiers, and a prisoner’s striped shirt and cap.

Flags, swords, machine guns, handguns and military vehicles will be displayed. A separate room will house chilling photographs taken by Germans and Americans inside a concentration camp — photos of executions and starvation. There will be shells from the executions of thousands of prisoners, and a whip from Auschwitz.

“Some of it’s creepy, but this is history,” said Lynne Terr, the gallery’s executive director.

Most of the items are from the private collection of Dr. Joe Matheu. He will be joined by a half-dozen other local collectors of military memorabilia in creating the first exhibit of its kind at McCord.

Terr said when people learned about the upcoming exhibit, they called to offer a grandmother’s WAVE cap or a father’s uniform. A veteran from an Ohio nursing home is donating an airplane he fashioned out of artillery shells.

Matheu has exhibited his Civil War artifacts at McCord Gallery over the years, but this is the first time he has taken his World War II collection beyond his grandchildren’s classrooms.

“I love history. It fascinates me,” he said. “History comes alive when you read or hold something. It’s important for people to remember that this was a battle between good and evil.”

Even though Matheu was born during the war in 1942, his primary interest is the Civil War. Over time, he has expanded beyond that to include World War II and Indian wars.

The first item in his World War II collection was his own family’s ration book from the 1940s. Then fellow collector and friend Don Anderson told him about a widow who was selling her husband’s uniform.

“It’s been downhill ever since,” Matheu said, joking about his affinity for historical artifacts.

Similarly, Anderson began with a British helmet acquired in a Denver antique store.

“That was the fish hook in my mouth,” he said. He will display swords and handguns from the war and the uniform of U.S. Air Force Mighty 8 Tech Sgt. Fred Neubauer, a former Chicagoan, “who was all over the European theater,” he said.

Joining them will be Lance LaBorde with an unusual assortment of “trench art.” This art form, which began in World War I, features discarded artillery shells hand-carved with intricate designs, as well as names of soldiers from major battles, created by the soldiers during their down time in the trenches, he said.

LaBorde will also share photographs of cemetery scenes from the burials of Nazi soldiers, acquired from German relatives.

While each piece might be awe-inspiring to someone, the brass church bell is Matheu’s favored piece in his World War II collection.

“It’s such a rare artifact. I’ve never seen anything from Nagasaki,” he said, noting that it looks just like it did when found in the rubble of the Urakami Church.

The small, yet loud bell, engraved with the words “Angelus” and “Nagasaki,” is one of two bells found in the church, just 500 meters from ground zero. The other is housed in a Nagasaki museum.

The bell is one of the few items to survive the bomb that killed 20,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of the city and the church.

“The fact that it survived shows that faith and God will prevail,” Matheu said.

The time-ravaged helmet also will remind visitors of the stark realities of war.

According to a letter of authenticity, it was discovered by a U.S. Marine who returned to visit Hawaii some 20 years after the war and found a concrete blockhouse. Inside were the skeletons of six Japanese soldiers, and the helmet still was on one soldier’s head, with the chunk of grenade still embedded in his skull.

As Matheu points out, these artifacts may be “a sordid part of history, but it is important to know.”

Parents of children who previously have seen his Civil War exhibits said their kids were inspired to read more about it, and became better students, he said.

“It reaches people in a lot of different ways. Why (collect) if I’m not going to share it with others?” he said.



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